For a brief moment in 2010, Vancouverites and visitors to the city could travel for free from Cambie Street to Granville Island on fancy streetcars from Brussels.
It was a city pilot project, called the Olympic demonstration line, to test and promote streetcars as a public transit alternative to buses and SkyTrains. The line attracted 550,000 passengers in 60 days.
That Olympic demonstration line was not the only time Vancouver has toyed with the idea of streetcars.
In the past, the city has considered streetcar routes from Granville Island to Waterfront Station, Yaletown, Stanley Park and even all the way down the Arbutus Greenway on the city’s west side. But a decade after the Olympics, the tracks sit empty.
Why build a streetcar?
Some consider the streetcar an intermediate level of transit. It can carry more passengers than buses, and if its tracks are separated from vehicle traffic, it can be faster too.
Streetcars may not be SkyTrain fast, but they usually cost much less.
And they can offer more than just moving more people more efficiently.
Watch Uytae Lee’s CBC short film Vancouver’s Streetcar Drama:
In a 2005 study, the City of Vancouver pushed for a streetcar line. The study said it would foster economic growth, connect tourists to Granville Island and help revitalize neighbourhoods.
The study also said what I imagine a lot of people are thinking: “Streetcars are just… cooler!”
Or as the report put it, “smoother rides, easier access and better viewing often translate into more riders due to the increased level of passenger comfort.”
Why pump the brakes?
Despite its supporters, streetcars in Vancouver are going nowhere fast as the decision ultimately lies with TransLink, whose response to the idea has been a hard pass.
The first phase of a proposed streetcar route is from Granville Island to Waterfront Station.
However, the No. 50 bus already runs every 15 to 20 minutes between those stops and the streetcar would actually take about six minutes longer than the bus. Viewing it this way, the streetcar wouldn’t add much to Vancouver’s transit network.
But streetcar proponents see it as an economic and neighbourhood-building solution, as much as it is a transit solution.
This difference of opinions relates to a shift in transit planning identified in a Columbia University study analyzing recent streetcar projects across the United States.
The study says, “new streetcar investments no longer primarily improve transit accessibility. Rather, modern streetcars are part of strategic amenity packages cities use to achieve real estate and economic development goals.”
In my opinion, that’s a risky strategy.
First, the neighbourhoods that the study says will be revitalized are areas where gentrification has been controversial.
Second, I question if more people will actually start using public transit just because the ride got more attractive.
When I first started riding the SkyTrain, it was thrilling. But after 10 days, 60 days, two years? Now I’m staring at my phone just like everyone else.
I still take the SkyTrain because it’s the fastest way downtown, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to use it.
That’s a lesson many cities are learning the hard way.
There are many examples of streetcars across North America. Cities such as Cincinnati, Seattle, Detroit, Atlanta, and Dallas are examples of a few that were constructed under similar assumptions and are now struggling to attract users.
At the end of the day, people use transit because it takes them where they need to go quickly and reliably. I think that’s the truth whether we’re moving on roads or tracks. If we forget that, we risk building a transit service that’s just bells and whistles.
Hear Uytae Lee discuss streetcars with The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn: